Movies have been made about the Prohibition era's elite white New York mobster corps. And about the Prohibition era's elite black Harlem jazz clubs.
Sixty years ago, the two worlds converged -- you could say mixed, but you'd be unrealistic -- at Harlem's Cotton Club. They converge again in "The Cotton Club," Francis Ford Coppola's semi-historical, long-awaited musical- cum-mobsters epic. Maybe this time -- because the two elements are embraced in one fairly unique movie -- you could say mixed.
Be careful with your realism, though; the world changes slowly.
Ask Lonette McKee, who plays chorus girl Lila Rose Oliver, for instance: How much of the film is devoted to Lila's racially imperiled love affair with dancer Sandman Williams (played by actor/dancer Gregory Hines), and how much to the essentially white, violence- prone mobster story -- which centers on the fireworks around (and between) Richard Gere as cornet player Dixie Dwyer and Diane Lane as the mistress of Dwyer's dangerous underworld benefactor, Dutch Schultz.
"It's about down the middle," says McKee. "But maybe you'll be seeing a little more of Gere and Diane Lane, but that's just by the nature of the beast: It's just hard to sell a film, even a $60 million film directed by Francis Coppola, if people think there's too many black people in it."
A pause here.
"It's ridiculous that I even have to say something like that," McKee says, managing to sound simultaneously solemn and chipper. "It kind of shows you how very little things have changed."
But, McKee thinks, people will leave "Cotton Club" feeling pretty good -- about both this guns-and-glitter film as a whole and the quality (and quantity, for those of you with stopwatches) of the black peformances, musical and otherwise, around which the dramatic fabric of "Cotton Club" is woven.
McKee says much of her big love scene with Hines is "very impromptu, very ad lib." Coppola, she says, "was like everybody's Italian papa. He really is an actor's dream."
Playing the role of mulatto chorus girl Lila, McKee says, was sort of a long-sought personal dream. In the film, Lila's love affair with Sandman threatens, and is threatened by, her "secret life" in a club downtown -- where she "passes" as white. The role enabled McKee to draw on her acting, singing and dancing skills as well as on her own life -- as the daughter of a woman "who married a black man in the early '40s, before it was fashionable . . .
"I had a lot to tap into in this story," she says. "And now, I keep getting asked, you know, how do I feel about the whole issue of passing -- would I 'pass' today, in my own life? Of course not. I have identified with black people all my life, suffered through the same indignities and injustices as very dark black people. I don't look like anything in particular. Every day people ask, you know, 'What are you?' I always say black.
"On the other hand, I don't want the 'Cotton Club' thing to limit me in the future," McKee says, with a soft laugh. "Which brings us back to how little things have changed, doesn't it?"